So here we go again; popular science media outlets are declaring the phenomena of Out-of-Body Experience to be solved, based on a study of what can only be described as a proximal experience in the laboratory.
I’m talking about the way science news journalists like to spin the results of any experiment involving OBE’s or NDE’s (near-death experience), so that the conclusions seem to fit the mainstream narrative that such experiences are simply illusory products of brain activity. To be perfectly clear, I’m not saying that they aren’t illusory experiences, nor am I saying that they’re factually genuine. What I am saying is that the quoted studies do not, cannot support that specific claim. This is an old complaint from me, but I’ll happily illustrate why yet again.
A group of neuroscientists from Sweden published a paper on April 30 in the journal Current Biology, which explains a set of experiments they undertook to image brain activity using an fMRI machine, of patients who were experiencing an induced out-of-body illusion. The stated goal of their research was to identify and study the areas in the brain that are responsible for or are related to body-ownership and spatial awareness. As they note in the abstract, no one has ever looked at how those concepts, and the brain structures involved with those concepts – parietal and medial temporal cortices – might be involved in experiences similar to OBE’s.
According to their paper, they were able to identify activity in certain structures, namely the hippocampus and intraparietal cortices, among others, that bears a strong correlation to our sense of body ownership, and spatial cognition. They specifically claim that the posterior cingulate cortex plays a key role in the integration of spatial awareness and body-ownership. This research could potentially be significant in the treatment of certain mental disorders such as schizophrenia and certain forms of epilepsy.
But there is a very important part of this study that’s being misrepresented by news outlets, specifically by Live Science.
In order to achieve a brain-state in their tests subjects that can be thought of as similar to that which is present during an OBE, the researchers had to create a perceptual illusion using cameras and mirrors, which caused the subject to perceive their body in abnormal spatial orientations. Admittedly, that seems logically similar to what OBE reporters claim to be their experience. However, these researchers, and those reporting their findings are glossing over the very real and very important assumption that lies at the heart of that similarity.
Is the brain activity associated with the induced illusion of an abnormal spatial orientation the same as the brain activity of someone who is undergoing an Out-of-Body Experience? It’s conceivable that they are, but that connection has not been proven by this paper.
To make matters worse, the Live Science writer in question didn’t even provide a direct link to the paper in question so that readers could, and would be encouraged to, go look at the results themselves, rather than taking that one writer’s word for it.
If you’ll recall last year, the science magazine Frontiers published a story about the “study” of a Canadian woman who claimed that she can, in the manner of an OBE, leave her body at will. The story painted the picture of a clinical trial involving fMRI scans of her brain while she thought she was out of her body. Though, as I pointed out in that case as well, the assumption that what she was experiencing, or claimed she was experiencing, was in fact the result of an OBE was completely overlooked in the story. To make matters worse in that case, the story was actually just a story. It was the anecdotal telling of how one researcher put this self-proclaimed OBE’er through a single fMRI scan and then interpreted the results of that scan as they saw fit, with no controls, methodology, or clear goals in mind. And, predictably, science news reporters lapped up the narrative and ran with it as though this is how science is done.
In light of these two cases and the clear bias they highlight in science reporting, is it really any wonder so many people don’t trust this entity, this persona called Science, any further than they can throw it? Don’t get me wrong, I loath science denial as much as unfounded science worship, but this kind of blatant bias, which at times seems to be calculated and deliberate, is almost enough for me to change sides, at least for a little while.
“Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth--penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.” ~Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
In an age in which Science is regarded as the new god and scientists as its appointed priests, artists will turn into heretics spawning new myths by which to speak of greater truths. The myths of the XXIst century are not to be found in temples.
On his book Mutants & Mystics [Amazon US & UK] --a book we've promoted at the Grail on numerous occasions, and will continue to do so-- Jeffrey Kripal explores how paranormal phenomena have often served as inspiration for artists in the shaping of pop culture content, such a pulp novels or comic books. No greater example could be found than in Daredevil's #133 (by writer Marv Wolfman and artists Bob Brown and Jim Mooney), in which "the man without fear" teamed up with none other than "the Spoonman" himself: Uri Geller.
Why the Marvel artists decided to promote the young Israeli mentalist is due to direct divine intervention --or in this case, the god of the Marvel universe: Stan Lee. As Wolfman wrote in the letter column after the story was published:
[...]Stan said he’d like to use Uri Geller in one of our comics, and that I should find a place for him. At that time, I had heard of Geller – he was some sort of a metal-bender. That’s all I had heard, and frankly, I wasn’t too keen on the idea, and so I said I’d use him in DAREDEVIL (easier for me to do this than to assign it to another writer, I thought). Cut to a week or so later – I was at a party up at Paty (Cake) Greer’s upstate New York home and I happened to see a copy of “Uri Geller, My Story” in her bookstand. Asking if I could borrow it for background information, I began reading it, and getting more and more involved with the reading. It was a fascinating story – and, yes, I was hooked – though still a total cynic.
It was then that Uri called, asking if he could come up to the offices to speak with me, to discuss the story. I said sure, hoping that this would be a chance to find out some things not in the book. He did come up the next day, and I found him to be a very likeable person, an avid Marvel fan, and not at all what one would expect a person with “special powers and abilities” to be like – in other words, the furthest thing from an egomaniac that you could hope to find. During the course of our talk, he asked for a key, which I gave him, then asked me to hold his fingers to see if he was pressing on the key. They were loosely around the heavy metal key, and slowly, as I held his fingers with mine, I watched the key bend.
Yeah, I may be a cynic, but I don’t ignore facts – the key had bent – I was holding his fingers so I know he couldn’t bend them with his hand, and it was my key. Whatever powers he had – were real. At that point, he asked me to draw a picture and not show it to him. He then began drawing his own picture, and as you can see from our two illustrations reproduced on this page, the sketches are very similar. Considering the rough drawing style from which Uri was trying to receive his psychic impressions, he was able to come very close to my own illustration – even duplicating the bizarre front view of the face on the side view of the body.
Afterwards, Uri bent another key for Sparklin’ SCOTT EDELMAN, with virtually the entire Marvel staff watching. We also took a few publicity pictures; the best printed here.
As for me, I began a cynic, and now I’m a believer – of whatever abilities Uri has, and if there are any super heroes in this world, we should hope they are all as nice as Uri.
The image on the left is the one drawn by Wolfman, and the right one by Uri.
The comic book even deals with Geller's own 'origin story' of how he (allegedly) acquired his psychic abilities during his early childhood, after having a close-encounter experience with a UFO. Perhaps no more fantastic an explanation than say, being exposed to outer space radiation like the Fantastic Four, or Matt Murdock's (Daredevil) accident with a truck transporting radioactive waste; in which case Geller could probably fit into the 'radioactive hero' category employed by Kripal --something I'm sure would greatly please him, seeing how he nowadays boasts of having served for Mossad and the CIA as a 'psychic spy'…
Kripal does mention Geller on a couple of occasions in Mutants & Mystics though, and not in a particularly flattering way:
From the perspective of the [Stanford Research Institute] scientists, Geller was an artful mixture of stage magician and the real deal --the truck and truth, or tricky truth again. They studied him at SRI for six weeks toward the end of 1972. He never managed to demonstrate his psychokinetic powers under the controlled laboratory conditions of SRI, but he did produce some fantastic effects outside the lab, including one really weird instance of teleportation with Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell.
The' teleportation' event was actually closer to an apport, the kind of spiritual manifestation of an object that is often reported among Eastern cult leaders and gurus. Mitchell wanted to test Geller's supposed abilities, and challenged him to produce the camera he had left on the Moon; since the device had a very specific NASA serial number which would be unknown to Geller, this would be an excelent way to eliminate the possibility of forgery.
Alas, Geller's powers didn't raise to the occasion --good thing he wasn't fighting super-villains instead!-- but what happened instead did manage to surprise Mitchell nonetheless: While they were having lunch along with Russell Targ at the SRI cafeteria, Geller almost broke a tooth on something in his ice cream; it was the point of a miniature arrowhead, which Mitchell thought it looked familiar. Back in the lab, everyone suddenly saw something fall on the carpet: "We picked it up, and it was the rest of the arrow. Together, the two pieces made a tie pin." Mitchell was astonished because he immediately recognized it as a tie pin that belonged to him; one that he had lost years ago. The Trickster strikes again!
But getting back to the Daredevil story, Geller not only helps the Hell's Kitchen vigilante to 'sense' the presence of the baddies using his 'powers', but he even has a mano a mano --make that a mente a mente-- fight with the (also psychic) villan 'Mind-wave.' It's a shame the story writer didn't decide to make Geller face his real arch-nemesis *ahem*
Speaking of skeptics, they have also been invited to step inside the 'super hero' universe a couple of times. Neil deGrasse Tyson, for instance, was the one who helped Superman locate the position of his long-gone home world in Action Comics #14. I even managed to detect his voice in the recently-released official trailer of Batman vs Superman; like most modern geeks, Neil has no problem in dabbling with Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres --it's when the Fantasy starts to creep into Reality and viceversa, like Kripal ascertains, that hardcore materialists meet their own personal kryptonite...
What other real life psychics, mystics and magicians --or people who claim to be so-- do you think deserve to rub elbows with our spandex-clad gods? Share your thoughts in the comments section!
[H/T Fortean UK]
In 1876, physician Silas Weir Mitchell described how he was treating two men who suffered from strange “sensory discharges”: being woken from their sleep by the seemingly illusory sound of "loud bells" or a “gunshot”. Provocatively named 'exploding head syndrome', a modern sufferer describes his own symptoms as a "sudden crescendo of noise, then a profound and jarring explosion of sound, electrical fizzing and a bright flash in my vision, like someone has lit a spotlight in front of my face."
Despite its strangeness (or perhaps because of it?), there has been relatively little research into the disorder. A new theory has however been put forward by Assistant Professor Brian Sharpless of Washington State University:
Several ideas have been proposed, including ear disorders and partial epileptic seizures. But the most compelling theory comes from a handful of studies in which people with the condition have had their brain activity monitored overnight. These small studies suggest that there may be a burst of neural activity in the brain that coincides with the reported explosion.
Normally, when we go to sleep our body shuts down and becomes paralysed so that we don’t act out our dreams. During this transition from wake to sleep, the brain usually turns off bit by bit, says Sharpless.
However, in exploding head syndrome, there is a hiccup in the 'reticular formation' – the part of the brain responsible for overseeing this general shut-down – which results in a delay in switching off some areas.
This delay is associated with a suppression of alpha brainwaves that are normally responsible for drowsiness, and a sudden burst of neural activity in the areas of the brain responsible for processing sound. “We think the neurons are all firing at once,” he says, which results in the sensation of an explosion in your head.
Sharpless says that the syndrome's similarity to another neurological disorder, 'sleep paralysis' - both appear to arise from problems in the transition between wakefulness and sleep - may also tie it to some 'paranormal' experiences:
Take a look at these supernatural or alien stories, says Sharpless, and sometimes you can see hints of both sleep paralysis and exploding head syndrome. “People can sense these strange explosions in their head, and they may think they’ve had something implanted in their brain. Or they feel this surge of electricity and they think they’ve been shot by some kind of new energy weapon. They can’t move, but hear and see strange things and think they’ve been abducted.”
For more detailed discussion about the sounds heard during paranormal experiences, be sure to have a read of my Darklore article "Her Sweet Murmur".
The video below seems like the usual playful moment between a loving mother and her 4-year-old daughter; making funny faces at the camera, sharing hugs and kisses, and talking about the woman's grandmother, who "went to heaven" last November at the age of 93.
Then, right at the end, the girl delivers quite the bombshell:
From Jaime Primak Sullivan's Facebook page:
I am freaking out - I can't even find words. I don't know what to think or say or do- there is no way Charlie could know this. My grandmother called me this name growing up- there is NO WAY Charlie could know. I am shaking.
Of course, skeptics would say the whole thing was staged, and it's true there's no way we can verify whether little Charlie didn't know her great-granny called her mom by the name 'Jamila' --or if the girl was queued as it's the opinion of some members in the comments below. But if true, then this little incident might be another confirmation that little children, still untouched by the 'social conditioning' we all grow up with, are more sensitive and still in touch with "the other side."
Now, whether this 'other side' is another dimension of existence in which our dearly departed still live in some immaterial form, or is rather a state of consciousness in which the Time is non-existent and all things and beings remain in a state of interconnectedness, that's something for which we don't really have any answers... yet.
Have your children shown similar 'mediumnistic' abilities? Share your stories on the comments below
[H/T Above Top Secret]
'Hearing voices' has become a phrase synonymous with mental illness. But auditory hallucinations are a lot more common than many realise - in fact, as many as 1 in 8 people will 'hear voices' at some point in their life.
And what's more, if we consider how the hearing of voices has contributed to some of the core elements of a number of religions, we might be quite startled to find that it has had a rather large influence on the world we live in. And yet very little research has been done on the topic until now.
To help gain a better understanding of this strange phenomenon, a research team from Durham and Stanford Universities designed an open-ended online questionnaire in which they asked people to describe, in their own words, what they experienced. It was completed by 153 people with a range of diagnoses, including 26 who had never had a psychiatric diagnosis.
Their findings have just been released in a new paper published by The Lancet, titled "Experiences of hearing voices: analysis of a novel phenomenological survey". For TL;DR sufferers, they also have summarised their results on the Hearing the Voice website:
Public perception is that hearing voices is always a symptom of severe mental illness such as schizophrenia and psychosis, and that the voices people experience are loud, commanding and dangerous. Our study confirmed previous research that challenges these assumptions, finding that people hear many different kinds of voices (some with strong characterful qualities); and that despite associations with negative emotions such as fear, anxiety and depression, many people also hear positive and supportive voices.
Perhaps more importantly, though, the study’s findings call in to question the presumption that voice-hearing is always and exclusively an auditory experience. While many of the participants said that the voices they heard were similar to hearing somebody speaking in the same room, 10% of participants reported purely ‘thought-like’ voices with no acoustic properties, and a further 40% reported ‘mixed’ voices that had both thought-like and auditory characteristics. These findings challenge the view that hearing voices is necessarily a perceptual or auditory phenomenon, and may also have implications for future neuroscientic studies of what it is happening in the brain when people ‘hear’ voices.
Our study also found that changes in emotion and bodily sensations often accompany voice-hearing experiences. 66% of participants reported alterations in the way their body felt while hearing voices, such as feeling hot or tingling sensations in their hands and feet. Nearly 20% of participants experienced ‘multi-sensory’ voices, suggesting that their voices were ‘perceived’ simultaneously through more than one sensory modality. Interestingly, it was voices with effects on the body that were more likely to be abusive and violent; and in some cases, were linked to previous experiences of trauma, such as bullying, neglect, and physical and sexual abuse.
Link: Hearing the Voice
Paper (full-text): "Experiences of hearing voices: analysis of a novel phenomenological survey"
What is the meaning of life? For some it's 42, for others it can be found in religion or science. For a few of us, the meaning of life is simply the wonder of not knowing. However, instead of looking outwards for the answer, perhaps we can find what we're looking for within -- and find meaning in our dreams. Anthropologist Margaret Mead described a unique perspective on the meaning of life that came to her in a dream (Amazon):
Last night I had the strangest dream. I was in a laboratory with Dr. Boas and he was talking to me and a group of other people about religion, insisting that life must have a meaning, that man couldn’t live without that. Then he made a mass of jelly-like stuff of the most beautiful blue I had ever seen — and he seemed to be asking us all what to do with it. I remember thinking it was very beautiful but wondering helplessly what it was for. People came and went making absurd suggestions. Somehow Dr. Boas tried to carry them out — but always the people went away angry, or disappointed — and finally after we’d been up all night they had all disappeared and there were just the two of us. He looked at me and said, appealingly “Touch it.” I took some of the astonishingly blue beauty in my hand, and felt with a great thrill that it was living matter. I said “Why it’s life — and that’s enough” — and he looked so pleased that I had found the answer — and said yes “It’s life and that is wonder enough.”
Read more at Brain Pickings.
Anthropologist Fabian Graham recently asked an interesting question on the Paranthropology Facebook group: Is it possible to draw lines between religious, paranormal and psychological/physiological experiences - and if so, where?
"For example", says Fabian, "trance possession may be religious in one context but paranormal or psychological/physiological in another, the key difference being socially sanctioned norms". As an illustration, he pointed out the Hindu festival of Thaipusam, during which devotees undertake a 5km long pilgrimage carrying various types of kavadi (burdens), ranging from a pot of milk to mortification of the flesh through piercing (not to mention walking on barefoot the entire distance on burning-hot tarmac):
Taking Thaipusam in Penang last week as a case in point, if the folk in the photos are possessed by the God of War Murugan and hence feel no pain, most might argue that this is a religious phenomena. However, for this to occur, a deity would have to acquire spiritual energy and manifest this from deity realms into the realms of human reality - which, quite frankly, sounds as much a religious as a paranormal phenomena. If on the other hand the folk in the photos are not possessed by Murugan and feel no pain, in layman's terms, they would have to un-link their consciousness from the pain receptors in their nervous system - also an event existing outside the so-called 'normal' realms of experience. So religious, paranormal or psychological/physiological experiences/ phenomena?
For those interested in learning more about Fabian Graham's work, note that he contributed an article to the mediumship anthology released by Daily Grail Publishing last year, Talking With the Spirits (Amazon US and UK), titled "Vessels for the Gods: Tang-ki Spirit Mediumship in Singapore and Taiwan". Not to mention that the amazing image on the book's cover is one of his photos as well!
Images in the post by Fabian Graham.
Over at his blog, Carlos Alvarado has a summary of a recent survey, by Dr Harvey Irwin, of 114 people involved in parapsychology - an attempt to understand the views of contemporary psi researchers.
From the abstract:
Some issues, such as the reality of psi and the importance of specialist training in parapsychology, attracted substantial consensus, but a disparity of views was evident on other issues (e.g., the unity of ESP and PK); somewhat surprisingly, developments in anomalistic psychology and mainstream concerns over probabilistic evaluation of hypotheses appear to be of limited interest to parapsychologists.
Some of the quick take-aways were:
- When asked for their estimate of the reality of psi, using a scale ranging from 0 to 100%, the mean answer was 78.91.
- When asked about the possibility that their interests were motivated by spiritual concerns, replies were spread fairly evenly: “strongly” 21%, “moderately” 29%, “slightly” 24%, and “not at all” 26%.”
- When asked about belief in life after death: “strongly disagree” 3%, “disagree” 10%, “somewhat disagree” 1%, “neither agree nor disagree” 36%, “somewhat agree” 16%, “agree” 18%, and “strongly agree” 17%.
- How many agreed with (ie. responded 'somewhat agree', 'agree', and 'strongly agree') the following diverse questions: "Ganzfeld now less effective": 18%; "survival research essential": 45%; "significance testing unsatisfactory": 48%.
Three survey items related to the use of constructs from the philosophy of science to discount some findings of parapsychological research . . . Although there was some variation in responses, approximately half of the sample deemed commentators’ use of the concepts of the need for replication and the principle of parsimony to be purely rhetorical devices in the criticism of parapsychological research. On the other hand, over 40% of respondents evidently saw more than rhetoric in the critics’ demand for replicability. Views were rather more cohesive on the third issue: only 13% of the sample believed parapsychologists were using the concept of psi-missing primarily to explain away inconvenient experimental findings.
An open-ended question about current problems of parapsychology elicited mention of low financial support, resistance from institutions to research, the views of critics, and other issues.
Erotic Encounters in the Borderlands of Consciousness
In October 2012, the pop star Kesha claimed she once had sex with a spirit. Her report was conveniently announced along with the promotion of her new song, Supernatural, which happened to coincide with the weeks before Halloween and was quickly dismissed as a headline-attracting media trick. But there may be something to her claim, as her account is very much in line with the experience of millions of contemporary dreamers. Kesha’s amorous ghost is probably a subset of the incubus encounter, a nocturnal meeting with an otherworldly creature that sits on your chest or otherwise gets all up in your business while you lay in bed. The entity can take the shape of known mythological figures, ghosts, demons, or weird human-animal hybrids. Often, the encounter is fearful, and is described as supernatural assault. Part of the assault has to do with the fact that sometimes feelings of paralysis (and victimhood) are felt when sleep paralysis mingles with the vision. But for others it’s pleasurable, resulting in orgasm and bliss. We live in a time that tries to ignore the visionary moments of life, yet the experiences keep happening anyway.
The realistic encounter with nonhuman—or supernatural—entities has been recorded as early as Babylonian times. Some sexual imp traditions include the Sumerian sex demon Lilith and the ancient Greek god Pan. More often than not, these encounters were interpreted as demonic possession. But not always. For example, the Greek dream interpreter Artemidorus wrote that a sexual Pan encounter “foretells a great profit,” especially if he “does not weigh a person down,” referring to the more common paralysis sensations.1
In modern populations, a significant minority has erotically-charged hypnagogic experiences despite the lack of cultural prompting. Those who feel safe enough to “go with the flow” and not fight the ecstasy are sometimes rewarded with bliss. Physiologically, this shouldn’t be too surprising, as REM sleep is a sexually-active brain state. It’s quite common for both men and women to have multiple periods of genital engorgement during the night—usually these are not remembered, but clearly visible when men wake up tenting the sheet.
By way of example, one young woman wrote to me, “When I was younger I used to get paralyzed in my sleep and I use to think that the devil was coming in me. It made me scared. Now I’m 28 and started feeling like I was having the best sex. . . . I had no clue this happened to other people.” She went on to describe how she has had visitations since she was a child, and they were not always welcome. “Now that I am older and it’s been happening for so long…I always climax…I really want him there with me.2
Other nocturnal encounters mix pleasure and horror in a bizarre way. A reader of my blog Dream Studies Portal who goes by Nox Influx sent me the following narrative that mixes hypnogogia with sleep paralysis:
I was [sleeping and] lying on my stomach, on top of this beautiful woman, having sex, she was saying things, and the sex got more intense, at the point near orgasm I awoke to sleep paralysis, and I hallucinated me on top of a white skinned, blue-lipped dead body. It stayed a few seconds while I couldn’t move and then vanished when movement returned. It sounds negative, but I found it to be exciting in an odd way.3
So how does the positive incubus encounter take place, even when the dreamer does not have a previous understanding that these things are even possible? Taboo is a big part of visionary consciousness, but cultural influence is not the only influence. In my opinion, the cross-cultural nature of sexual incubi points toward a neurobiological constant, an ancestral legacy.4 David Hufford suggests that not only are extraordinary events normal, but “better knowledge of each [event] strengthens that belief rather than weakening it (e.g., learning that others have had virtually the same experience; information regarding possible physiological triggers is irrelevant to the assessment of the reality of the experience).”5 It’s simply a natural part of being human, but of course like all visionary experiences they can reflect our health and dis-ease as well as our relationship to the unknowable.
Case Study: Lucy Liu's Visitation
Kesha is not the first celebrity to announce supernatural hanky-panky. In 1999, actress Lucy Liu admitted in an interview with US Weekly that she had had sex with a heavenly figure. She was lying down on the couch for a nap, and felt an unknown presence on top of her. What followed was a pleasurable spell of lovemaking. “It was sheer bliss. I felt ... Read More »
Dr Dean Radin has been perhaps the leading spokesperson and experimentalist in the field of parapsychology over the past two decades. His work has covered many areas, from telepathy to presentiment, but his most recent work has been concerned with possible interactions between human intention and quantum effects. In the fascinating (at times very funny) 'Science and Non-Duality' talk embedded below, he outlines some of the amazing results of this research (you can download a link to a recent scientific paper on the topic by Dean and his colleagues via this post on his blog).
Anecdotal reports of “experiential entanglements” – spontaneous mind-to-mind and mind-to-matter interactions – can be found throughout history, in all cultures, and at all educational levels. For over a century, such experiences have stimulated controlled scientific experiments to explore whether the anecdotes were best explainable as coincidence, confabulation, or genuine anomalies. Based on analysis of thousands of experiments published in peer-reviewed journals, the cumulative evidence is now clear: mind-to-mind and some forms of mind-matter interactions have been demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt.
For the most part, this evidence is ignored or denied within the academic mainstream, probably because it implies that certain long-held assumptions about the nature of brain, mind and matter – assumptions that are inculcated in universities and repeated as fact in textbooks – are in some cases wrong and in others in need of radical revision. I will review the evidence for these entanglements, the resistance to the evidence, and the implications for a more mature science of the future.
You can read more about Dean's research and thoughts on these topics in his book Entangled Minds.